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Toyota

It’s the year 2020…

But where are the flying cars? And hyperloops? And other things we were promised?

Uber will deploy flying cars

When Uber Technologies Inc. pledged to deliver on a promise of the Jetsons, it gave itself just three years to do so. The company still intends to hold flight demonstrations in 2020, but it’s safe to say you will not be able to hail a flying Uber in the next year. The company continues to explore the concept with regulators. In 2019, Uber added a form of flying vehicle that’s not particularly cutting edge: It’s booking helicopter rides in New York City. In December, Uber said it was working with a startup, Joby Aviation, to develop “aerial ride-sharing” and set a deadline of 2023. Uber Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi tweeted: “Getting closer …”

We first heard about this in 2017, and in 2018 we were told that NASA was testing these babies. Since then, we have also heard of flying motorcycles and these weird, drone-like things, but as yet, no flying vehicles that aren’t planes or helicopters. Mark your calendars for 2023 and ask me again.

The first 60-mile hyperloop ride will take place

In 2013, Elon Musk outlined his vision for a new “fifth mode of transportation” that would involve zipping people through tubes at speeds as fast as 800 miles per hour. Several tech entrepreneurs heeded Musk’s call and went to work on such systems inspired by the billionaire’s specifications. In 2015, one of the leading startups predicted a hyperloop spanning about 60 miles would be ready for human transport by 2020. Rob Lloyd, then the CEO of Hyperloop Technologies, told Popular Science: “I’m very confident that’s going to happen.”

It hasn’t. His company, now called Virgin Hyperloop One, has a 1,600-foot test track in California and hopes to build a 22-mile track in Saudi Arabia someday. Musk has since experimented with hyperloops of his own, and even he has had to scale back his ambitions. Musk’s Boring Co. is building a so-called Loop system in Las Vegas, starting with a nearly mile-long track that consists of a narrow tunnel and Tesla cars moving at up to 155 miles per hour.

Man, I was enthusiastic for this, ever since 2015 when we first heard the word “hyperloop”. Skepticism was warranted, and the technology has evolved over time, but we’re still waiting.

Toyota will make fully self-driving cars

Auto and tech companies alike became convinced this decade that computers would soon be able to drive cars more reliably than people. In 2015, Toyota Motor Corp. made a companywide bet that it would have autonomous highway-driving cars on the road by 2020. It didn’t take long for the hype cycle to veer off course. In 2018, a pedestrian died after colliding with an Uber self-driving car. In 2020, Toyota’s Lexus brand will introduce a car capable of driving autonomously on the highway, but executives acknowledged that auto companies were “revising their timeline for AI deployment significantly.”

Honestly, I’ve probably been more skeptical of the many breathless claims about driverless cars than I’ve been about hyperloops. That skepticism was also warranted, though to be fair, various forms of autonomous vehicles have been on the road. They’re still not ready for mass market use, and probably won’t be for at least another decade, but they’re not vaporware, either. As above, check back with me in a couple of years and we’ll see where we are.

Driverless car technology update

I have a personal stake in this story.

James Kuffner, the head of Google’s robotics division and one of the original team of ten who started its self-driving car work, has left the company for a job at Toyota’s $1 billion research institute in Silicon Valley.

His departure will come as a blow to the search and advertising giant, which has been plowing forward with a number of robotics projects including the self-driving car, which it hopes to offer for public use some time next year.

“It’s becoming clear that in the next phase of machine learning, access to lots of data to find and fix corner cases and to make a robust system is going to be very important, and I think Toyota is very well positioned to do that with its resources and its data,” Kuffner said in an interview at the CES expo in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

[…]

Toyota’s billion-dollar investment in the center was only announced in November, but the institute has already opened for business in two locations: one at the Stanford Research Park in Palo Alto and one in Kendall Square in Cambridge. They were chosen for their proximity to Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

TRI’s mission is to take fundamental robotics research into products that can benefit all of society. One of the loftier visions is the development of cars that are incapable of crashing due to their complex AI systems, but the institute will also look at home-help robotics for the elderly and other projects.

[…]

To be sure, the goal of a completely self-driving car that handles any situation and cannot crash is some distance away, but Kuffner said a lot will be possible in the next few years.

“We’re actually closer than people think to having self-driving cars on the road,” he said. “It is an evolution. There is a continuous spectrum between full manual control and full autonomous control, and there’s going to be phased deployments.”

He cited some of the current technologies making their way into cars, such as lane assist and adaptive cruise control.

“These safety features are creeping into lots of cars you can buy today, and the pace is increasing, so I think people will be happily surprised in the next five years at how our vehicles have changed.”

James is my cousin, and I found this story on his Facebook page in January. Needless to say, we’re all quite proud of him. I talked with him about his work on driverless cars a couple of years ago when we were in Portland visiting family, actually did an interview with him that I hoped to publish here, but we never got clearance from Google on it. I remember him telling me that when they started out, their intent was to make the autonomous cars follow all of the rules of the road, but quickly learned that this was not only impractical but dangerous. For example, in highway merge situations, sometimes you have to exceed the speed limit to ensure safety. They aimed instead at making the car behave more like a median driver, by which I mean one whose behavior is in the middle of the range of how drivers behave. It’s a challenging question to model behavior like this, and my guess is that’s one reason why we are seeing this phased implementation of the technology.

Anyway. The driverless car business continues to attract a lot of money and a lot of discussion about what the future of driving will look like. And a member of my family is playing a leading part in that. I think that’s pretty cool.

Once again, where are the jobs Rick Perry was trying to poach?

Politico revisits a familiar subject.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

California corndogs are the best

Since as early as February of last year and as recently as April of this one, Perry has made eight trips to six different states, all of which have one very particular thing in common: They’re run by Democratic governors. Perry has used his visits to hammer on a consistent theme: Texas is a great state for business; the state he’s currently in is not; so wouldn’t it make sense then for all those companies that aren’t currently located in the Lone Star State to correct their error? Earlier this month, Perry made plain the politics behind his accumulated frequent-flier miles. “Blue-state governors need to be looking over their shoulder,” he told a Fox News panel.

Perry’s focused national tour is built around a message that’s tailor made for a presidential campaign whose central issue will likely be a lagging economy. The “Texas miracle,” the idea that Perry’s policies produced job growth in the worst climate since the Great Depression, first emerged in his initial failed campaign and has lived on ever since, buoyed by the fact that the state’s unemployment rate remains below the national average. But as any number of progressive-minded opponents will tell you, that “miracle” is most likely due in large part to the state’s wealth of fossil fuels. Hardly an advantage Perry can claim credit for. But tempting CEOs to relocate southward? For that he’ll gladly take an attaboy.

Poaching companies is nothing new. States have been bad-mouthing and out-bidding each other for decades in the hopes of luring more business, often with little to show for it. But according to Greg Leroy, the executive director of Good Jobs First, a D.C.-based non-profit devoted to exposing what it considers the folly of government subsidies often given in the name of attracting companies, Perry’s campaign stands on its own. “I’ve been covering this for 30 years and there’s no precedent for what he’s doing,” says Leroy. “Nobody’s been as aggressive. Nobody’s done it as personally. He’s really taking it to a new low.”

[…]

The ideological fuel powering Perry’s trips out of state says that, unlike the weather, that vague term known as a “business climate” can be engineered, and that no one’s done a better job of parting the clouds than Texas. But Leroy and nearly a century’s worth of data suggest otherwise. As does the most recent pelt in Perry’s poaching tour, which also happens to be the biggest such prize in his political career.

[…]

Then, in late April, Perry got the big score that seemed to justify all his travels when Toyota announced it had selected Plano, a Dallas suburb, as the home of its new North American headquarters. “Toyota understands that Texas’ employer-friendly combination of low taxes, fair courts, smart regulations and world-class workforce can help businesses of any size succeed and thrive,” a glowing Perry said the day the announcement was made.

Toyota was a coup for two specific and related reasons. It meant 3,000 new jobs for Texas and 3,000 fewer for California, the state where Perry’s trip had begun and Exhibit A in his campaign against what he sees as business-killing taxation and regulation. It seemed the epitome of a red state offering safe harbor to a beleaguered company that had finally had enough abuse at the hands of a grubby-handed blue state. Yet just a few days after the announcement, Toyota began quietly offering a counter-narrative.

In an extended interview with the Los Angeles Times, Toyota’s North American chief executive Jim Lentz gave a more nuanced explanation for why the company left California. The true reason for his company’s move, Lentz explained, came down to something much simpler: not sending the wrong signal to his employees. Toyota, Lentz said, wanted to consolidate management that was spread out over three states. Choosing California was never an option because it was already the home of Toyota’s sales and marketing and Lentz said that he didn’t want to give the impression to the rest of the company that “sales was taking over.”

“It may seem like a juicy story to have this confrontation between California and Texas,” Lentz told the Times, “But that was not the case.”

That left four candidates: Plano, Charlotte, Denver and Atlanta. In an op-ed he published a week later in the Dallas Morning News, Lentz mentioned that low taxes were part of a “wide range of criteria” that led him and his company to choose Texas, but he also made a point to mention that the decision was a matter of “simple geography.” Greater Dallas is in the Central Time Zone, has a nearby airport with direct flights to Japan and sits close to the multinational’s large American base of manufacturing. In other words, Texas was not, as Perry would have it, the most desirable choice because of taxes, regulation or the $40 million in subsidies it offered as a cherry on top. Instead, Toyota picked Texas in large part because of the one enormous advantage the state has enjoyed ever since the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo: It sits smack in the middle of the country.

Yes, the Toyota story started falling apart even before the ink was dry on Perry’s self-congratulatory press release. I’m glad Politico followed up on that angle – and there’s still more to it, which we’ll get to in a minute – but as has been the case with all of these stories, no one ever seems to ask the question: where are the jobs Perry has been so busy trying to poach? Toyota was looking like the first real coup, before it all came crashing down in a landslide of boring corporate minutiae, but what else is there? I have long been of the belief that the answer is basically “nothing”, but it would be nice to have some newsgathering organization try to figure it out for themselves.

As for the other angle on Toyota, here’s the Observer.

Rick Perry’s office refuses to release any information about the $40 million it’s offering Toyota to relocate to Texas, despite providing the Observer with similar information last year for a $12 million grant to Chevron.

The Observer and the Houston Chronicle both filed open records requests with the governor’s office after Perry announced in April the $40 million incentive grant to Toyota from the Texas Enterprise Fund. The governor’s office promotes the Enterprise Fund as a “deal-closing” program that helps bring jobs to Texas. But in some cases evidence suggests that the fund does little but line the pockets of companies planning to move to Texas anyway. For example, the Observer reported last year Chevron already had plans to develop an office tower in downtown Houston, provided scant justification that it was considering other locations in its application and told the governor’s office that it planned to use the $12 million grant to pay for employee relocation perks.

It would be interesting to know if something similar happened with the Toyota grant. Especially since company executives have said the $40 million Texas Enterprise Fund grant had little to do with the relocation from California to Plano.

I can’t be the only one who thinks that if there was something in this information that made Rick Perry look good he’d have released it by now, right?

Prius problems

Really interesting cover story in the Press about issues Prius drivers have had with their previously-beloved vehicles. Seems they have this strange habit of accelerating at unpredictable times, with the extra bonus of the brakes not working too well. I wish the story had gone into some of the technical details – surely there’s a mechanic or an engineer somewhere with a theory as to what might be the cause of this – but it did get a variety of tales of failures from a bunch of people, some of whose experiences were pretty harrowing. You have to figure it’s just a matter of time before a big lawsuit is filed. Anyway, it’s a good read, so check it out.